2017 6 Nations preview

England haven’t won back to back Grand Slams since 1991 and 1992 back in the days of the 5 Nations, in fact nobody has won back to back Grand Slams in the 6 Nations era, so that indicates what a difficult task lays ahead for Eddie Jones’ men.  It’s not entirely out of the question, after all where there’s an Eddie there’s a way (or something like that), but with them facing a potential Grand Slam decider in March at the Aviva, where they lost 19-9 last time it will be tough.  Allied to the unfavourable schedule (France up first followed by a trip to Cardiff for Wales’ first home game of the Championship) they will be without key players like Billy Vunipola, Chris Robshaw, Manu Tuilagi, Anthony Watson and most importantly Mako Vunipola who are long term injury concerns and there will also be doubts over James Haskell and Jack Clifford who were recently injured on club duty (and Dylan Hartley’s been banned since December, so who knows what state he’s in physically).  The missing back-row players won’t be particularly missed if the tight 5 can provide a stable platform for them work from whoever England pick at 6, 7 and 8 will perform the tasks they are required to, Mike Williams may well make his debut but if your 4th choice is 6 feet 5 inches tall and weighs 18 stone then there’s nothing wrong with squad depth.  The question mark will be over whoever plays at loose-head because whoever it is won’t be able to do what Mako can, his ability to act as a first receiver in attack and disrupt opposition scrums will leave a whole in the game plan somewhere.

Since March 2013 the only team beat Ireland in a competitive match in Dublin have been the All Blacks, in 2013 with a heartbreaking last second conversion and in 2016 a rather banged up Ireland side lost 9-21 with the assistance of some rather lenient officiating, so it’s hard to see them losing to a Northern Hemisphere in the fortress-like Aviva this year.  Ireland open up their campaign in Edinburgh where they were impressive 30 point winners last time out but their visits to Murrayfield are usually much closer affairs, they’ve won 3 and lost 3 going back to 2007 and those 6 games have been decided by a total of 29 points, so this may very well be the game that decides the Championship.  Ireland’s other away game is in Cardiff in round 4 and Ireland haven’t won consecutive games in Cardiff since 2009, with the last 4 meetings being shared evenly but in their last visit to the Millennium Stadium they scored 5 tries on their way to a 22-35 victory, so they should be in confident mood as they cross the Irish Sea.

France are very much the surprise package of the 6 Nations, even to themselves.  Last year they had a chance to prevent England’s Grand Slam in the final game in Paris but despite making more line breaks and conceding fewer penalties than their visitors their inability to cross the whitewash saw them fall to a 21-31 loss.  England outscored France 11-3 in the last 29 minutes of that game and it raised the age old question of exactly how well conditioned are Guy Noves’ charges?  Since the start of last year’s 6 Nations France have won 4 games out of 10 and just one of those 4 games were outside France, so recent history doesn’t provide mu hope for les bleus but in their last 2 games they pushed both Rugby World Cup finalists close with a 2 point loss to Australia followed a week later with a 5 point loss to the All Blacks, so maybe they’re about to turn the corner?

The rarely seen optimistic Welshman in me couldn’t be happier about the introduction of the bonus point system into this year’s 6 Nations, allied with the introduction of Alex King as an “attacking guru” if you believe some publications (skills coach to the rest of us).  If any team in the Championship can benefit from the incentive to score tries it’s the team who had last year’s top try scorer George North out on the wing, Wales scored 17 tries last year (9 of them came in round 5 against Italy and since then they’ve largely been awful) so if they can summon up some confidence and the coaches actually allow them to play with freedom instead of strictly adhering to a prescriptive game plan that would confuse Professor Stephen Hawking there’s a chance they could upset a few apple carts in the coming weeks.  The major talking point in Welsh recent rugby has been Alun-Wyn Jones taking over the captaincy from Sam Warburton (who hasn’t been in great nick for the Cardiff Blues but will almost certainly feature at 6 0r 7 for Wales), Jones has been touted as the Lions captain for the tour to New Zealand in the summer but in order for that to happen one would imagine he’d have to be playing in a successful Welsh team.  Jones is not guaranteed a place on the tour at the moment with Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Richie and Jonny Gray, Luke Charteris and Devin Toner all playing well so far this season (Jake Ball and Tim Swinson have also been in great form for their respective team’s but both face a fight for game time in the follow weeks), so he will need to stand out as both player and leader.

Scotland have seemingly developed the ability to play very well in Autumn Internationals but then crumble and eventually capitulate completely after Christmas, they have improved under Vern Cotter and under Jonathan Humphreys their forward pack has become one to be reckoned with, but this will be Cotter’s last season in charge of Scotland so exactly how that plays out remains to be seen.  Since November 2014 they have run the All Blacks and Australia close at Murrayfield (losing by 8 to the All Blacks in 2014 and by a solitary point to the Wallabies last October) so with 3 games in front of their spirited supporters you have to believe they will have a say in who eventually wins the title.

Italy managed the incomprehensible combination of beating South Africa and losing to Tonga in consecutive weekends before Christmas so which Italian team turn up on a week by week basis is anybody’s guess!  Connor O’Shea must have believed that he was making progress after they defeated the Springboks by 2 points but having made a few changes to play a team ranked below them they conspired to lose to the Islanders by the same total.  The arrival of Dr. Brendan Venter as their permanent defence coach may solidify the sometimes unorganised Italian defensive line and with Carlo Canna looking like the 10 they’ve been missing since Diego Dominguez retired in 2003 the Italian’s may well provide an upset or 2 during the next 2 months, they have beaten France in 2 of their last 3 meetings on home soil, so that game could be fascinating and Wales face a tricky start away to the Azzurri in round 1, they have struggled against Italy before and although they haven’t lost to them in Rome since 2007 they will come up against an Italian pack who will be desperate to rediscover the form that vanquished the Springboks.

Personally I’m not sure how much difference the bonus point system will have on the tournament, particularly at the top of the table.  Head Coaches will still be more focussed on winning games than they will be on throwing the ball around wildly and chasing 1 extra point, there’s a very real chance that the team who wins the Wooden Spoon will be a team who records no bonus point’s and that could mean that a team who loses a few games by fewer than 7 points could finish above a team who wins one game (which would be a bit weird).  There’s a very strong possibility that Ireland will follow up their famous victory over the All Blacks in Chicago with a second Joe Schmidt Grand Slam (which would make Warren Gatland’s appointment as Lions Head Coach look a bit weird too).  Last season I predicted that the Grand Slam wouldn’t be won and Eddie Jones proceeded to show that with a decent Head Coach and a fully fit squad it’s almost easy to build momentum in a short tournament and this year England are still the bookies favourites to remain undefeated, so who knows? Certainly not me.

AFC Championship Game Pittsburgh Steelers @ New England Patriots

If the NFC Championship game is clear of drama then its AFC counterpart has enough hoopla surrounding it to keep most soap operas in storyline’s for about a year!  Pittsburgh and Boston fan are 2 of the most fervent fan bases in sports, so when their respective football teams meet in such an important game then a little tension is to be expected and the line between friendly rivalry and bad sportsmanship can become a little blurred.  To attest to that fact a 25 year old Bostonian was arrested at about 3 am on Sunday for setting off the fire alarm in the Steelers hotel, correspondingly Gillette Stadium was evacuated when the fire alarm went off there at about 7 hours later (so it’s going well so far).  Even before the latest shenanigans there was plenty of drama swirling around this game, 15 Steelers have been suffering from stomach flu leading up to the game, the Patriots have injury concerns over 3 of their 6 active Wide Receivers and Martellus Bennett will reportedly play with bone fragments in his heel!  And all that without even mentioning Roger Goodell’s absence from New England following the “Deflate-gate” brouhaha (if he feels the NFL was correct then why should he avoid any potential ill feeling, even if he’s likely to suffer a hostile reception from some locals?) or the reports that surfaced in December that Pittsburgh may have used deflated ball’s too, the NFL vehemently refuted the claims.  And then there’s Antonio Brown’s own personal social media snafu last week (he broadcast Head Coach Mike Tomlin post game speech from the changing room where he railed against the Patriots and how they have benefitted from extra rest due to the way the schedule has fallen, although the Patriots were the number 1 seed in the AFC) live on Facebook which wasn’t met with universal approval from his teammates.

So on to the actual football that may be played (if the fire alarm ever stops going off) and remembering that both of these teams combined are responsible for winning 20% of all the Super Bowls ever played this game could be one for the ages.  Both teams scrapped to wins last week with the Patriots coming up against a Jadaveon Clowney inspired Texans Defence and the Steelers having to battle some arctic conditions in Kansas City along with a worrying inability to get the ball into the end zone despite 7 trips to the redzone.  For the Steelers the return of smash-mouth football seems to be the key to their success, for all the talk of Antonio Brown being one of the top 2 receivers in the NFL Running Back La’Veon Bell has been responsible for 1,431 yards and 8 Steelers touchdowns in their 9 game unbeaten run compared to Brown’s 685 and 7 touchdowns.  The Patriots Defence however has been particularly stingy against the run, they only allowed 6 rushing touchdowns during the regular season (the fewest in the league) and on average they only conceded 3.9 yards per carry while they forced 11 fumbles (the second most in the league).  So the Steelers may lean more on Brown in this game than Bell and with his controversy in the locker room last week he certainly has appoint to prove, he was fined $10,000 by the team but if Tomlin is feeling particularly disciplinarian (and like a decent gambler) then he may well chose to hold Brown out of the early exchanges.  This could have a twofold effect, Brown is looking at signing a big contract in the near future and if the Steelers can perform in his absence then his next big pay day may come outside Pittsburgh and if the Steelers Offence can occupy the Patriots Defence adequately in the first 30 minutes of the game then a fresh Brown may well provide the finishing touches and close the game out for the away team.

The Patriots early struggles against the Texans will have disappointed Bellichick and the coaches but I think they will have been quietly satisfied that they showed the character to come through against one of the toughest Defences in the NFL, they turned over the ball 3 times and I’m sure the players have been hearing about that all week long.  It’s always important to learn from mistakes so if the Patriots had sailed through last week’s game without making any it would have been harder to coach them this week, Brady threw as many interceptions last week as he did in the preceding 12 games of the season so he won’t have been a happy bunny and will be desperate to show exactly how good he can be this weekend against an opponent he’s seem plenty of during his career.  In 6 games against Mike Tomlin’s Steelers Brady has lost just once and he’s thrown 19 touchdowns without throwing a single interception!  This is why I feel the Patriots are going to yet another Super Bowl, along with the absolute distain they feel towards Goodell after the 4 game ban Brady was subjected for his part in the “Deflate-gate” furore (although it was such a protracted legal process that nobody really remembers if Brady was proven to have done anything wrong at the beginning of it).  The Steelers Defensive line and Linebackers may well have a reasonable amount of success against a Patriots Offensive line who couldn’t handle Merciless and Clowney for large parts last week but former Steeler LeGarrette Blount will be pretty desperate to run all over them and take some of the steam out of any Defender unfortunate enough to get in his way (he weighs in just 18 stone and he can really move if he’s 100% healthy).

The bookmakers have got the Patriots as favourites and while the fitness of the Steelers flu sufferers and the Patriots Receivers will ultimately determine how comfortable the victory is I wouldn’t be surprised to see a faultless Brady showing and frankly I’m imagining the Patriots will be terrified to turn over the ball after last week’s profligacy!

NFC Championship game Green Bay Packers @ Atlanta Falcons

Really the only drama around this game is the fact that the Packers had to bus it 125 miles to Milwaukee because fog meant that they couldn’t fly out of Green Bay.  The delay meant that they were not due to arrive in Atlanta until 7pm on Saturday evening but as the game doesn’t kick off until 5 past 3 in the afternoon on Sunday the disruption should be minimal.

Aaron Rodgers has reached God-like Super Quarterback status in the last 8 weeks as he’s lead the Packers to 8 victories and guided them to the NFC North title despite suffering back to back losses of 18 or more points in November (a disappointing 25-47 on the road to Tennessee and an embarrassing 24-42 away to the Redskins 8 days later).  During these 8 weeks Rodgers has thrown 283 passes (over 35 per game), 21 of those passes have been for touchdowns, with just 1 interception in almost 2 months and Rodgers’ arm has been responsible for 77% of the Packers yards on Offence in that time.  Neither Defence really deserves to talked about because they’re not very good against the pass (Atlanta allowed 31 pass touchdowns + 267 yards per game and Green Bay 32 + 269 y.p.g), but even if they were Rodgers form has been so strong that’d he would make them look bad anyway.

Matt Ryan on the other hand has been in almost as phenomenal form as Rodgers, over his last 8 games he’s thrown 225 passes, of which 17 were for touchdowns and just 2 were interceptions.  Even more impressively than that is the fact that 72% of them, 163 in all have been caught!  The Falcons have one thing that the Packers don’t (well technically two things with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman) they have a consistent running threat and that’s where I believe Ryan and the Falcons have an advantage this week.  Roughly 30% of the Falcons total yards this season have come on the ground and 34% of their Offensive touchdowns have come on the ground, when the two teams met earlier in the year Tevin Coleman wasn’t fit but Terron Ward averaged 7.7 yards per carry and Devonta Freeman scored twice, once on the ground and once on a short screen pass (even Matt Ryan made 9 yards on 2 carries).

The Falcons won 33-32 on the 30th of October and they are favourites to win again this week but it’s not as straight forward as it would appear.  Most of the numbers point towards the Packers being the best team and with Aaron Rodgers any team would have a very good chance of winning, it’s the potency of the players around that is in question, Jordy Nelson who racked up 94 yards and a touchdown in the last meeting will still be feeling his recently broken ribs.  Even if he pays he won’t be able to fully extend to catch passes and every time he’s tackled or hits the turf in the Georgia Dome (or breathes deeply or sneezes) he’ll feel like his abdomen has been set on fire, Geronimo Allison, Davante Adams and Jeff Janis have all appeared on the Packers Injury Report this week too and they combined for 125 receiving yards and 2 touchdowns last time out.  Allied to the fact that 4 linebackers have appeared o the same Injury Report I think it’s time for Rodgers heroics to end.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the Packers string it out for as long as possible though and Overtime certainly isn’t out of the question, even with such a long list of injured or potentially restricted players the Packers will battle to the last and it would be typical of Rodgers to find Max McCaffrey in the end zone at some stage even if McCaffrey only joined the team yesterday.

AFC Divisional round Playoffs – Pittsburgh Steelers @ Kansas City Chiefs

Weather was the headliner in the build up to this game with the kick off being delayed because they were expecting an “ice-storm” but as it turned out the weather may have also delayed it’s kick off and the expected precipitation might not appear until the game has started (oopsie).  All the other chatter surrounding this game has surrounded the 3 B’s from the Steelers; Ben, Bell and Brown but that rather forgets the one man who could be the best B in KC tonight, Berry.  Eric Berry’s comeback from Hodgkin’s lymphoma has been nothing short of miraculous and if Super Bowl’s were won by the most deserving candidate then the Chiefs would be guaranteed to win all of them while Berry’s continues.
This season Berry has made 75 total tackles, defended 9 passes, forced a fumble and scored 2 touchdowns from the 4 interceptions he’s made.  So he’s pretty ubiquitous around the field, the only thing he hasn’t done this season is make a sack but with Dee Ford and Justin Houston combining for 14 between them Berry is just fine patrolling the backfield and acting as the eraser as John Lynch would say, just rubbing out any mistakes the 10 players in front of him make (not they make many).

Kansas City have their own 3 danger men on Offence in Jeremy Maclin, Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill, they’ve been responsible for 15 touchdowns so far this season (which is not far off the whopping 22 the 3 B’s have notched up) and when your team has the best give/take ratio in the league with 16, 10 more than the Steelers (the Chiefs lead the league in both interceptions and fumble recoveries) you don’t need to be putting up the points that the Steelers do (24.9 points per game), but the Chiefs aren’t far away with an average of 24.3.

The Steelers have done well pass protecting this season with just 21 sacks allowed in the regular season but the last time the teams played back in October the Chiefs sacked Big Ben twice and hit him a further 3 times so Justin Houston and co. will feel like they could have some success on their home turf.  Back in October The Steelers ran out 43-14 winners as Roethlisberger unloaded 5 touchdown passes on a Chiefs team who had a record of 2-1, that game was a bit of watershed for the Chiefs coming the week before their bye and since then they have only lost 2 more games. Immediately following the loss in Pittsburgh the Chiefs went on a 5 game winning streak and in the 2 games they have lost the aggregate score was 38-34, losing as they did 19-17 to both Tampa Bay and Tennessee (but since Pittsburgh doesn’t start with a “T” I don’t think the curse will be in effect this week)!

The Steelers are the meanest Defence in football right now, as illustrated by Dupree’s hit on Matt Moore last weekend so the Chiefs have to be aware that there will be some big hits (legal or illegal, Dupree was fined $18,000 for laying out the Dolphins QB) flying about and it will imperative they keep their starters, especially Tyreek Hill in one piece and also on Offence the Steelers won’t hesitate to lay out anyone who looks they might be about make a big play so Berry, Peters and the injury prone Justin Houston must avoid any big hits.  If the Chiefs can avoid any unfortunate injuries and keep their turnover record up this should be their game, but it could be close and the if it becomes a shoot out then the Steelers will like their chances, Big Ben loves a 2 minute drill so if they get the chance to tie or win the game late on then it could be the killer B’s paying a visit to Foxboro next week.

NFC Divisional round Playoffs – Green Bay Packers @ Dallas Cowboys

Aaron Rodgers is what scientists would call an “uncontrolled variable” and as he showed last week he can do absolutely anything during the course of a football game.  In the arctic temperatures at Lambeau Rodgers completed 25 passes, threw for 362 yards and 4 touchdowns, all of this despite being sacked 5 times and losing 31 yards in the process.  So this week inside “Jerryworld” in Texas he should have no problem picking apart a Cowboys defence who gave up 25 touchdowns through the air during the regular season and that could be true, the Giants showed that if you try to cover all the Packers receivers and just rush 4 Rodgers has the pass protection and patience to light up a defensive backfield.

The phrase “the Cowboys don’t blitz often, but when they do they get there” has been uttered more than a few times by Troy Aikman in the Fox commentary booth so far this season and if they don’t blitz Rodgers often then they might come a cropper, Benson Mayowa and Maliek Collins have been the Cowboys most successful pass rushers this season, (Mayowa with 4 in his last 5 games and Collins with 3 in his last 2) but David Irving has been the key to the Cowboys rush over recent weeks.  The 6 feet 7 inch, 19 stone Defensive End emerged as a real star in week 15 and in his last 3 games he’s recorded 3 sacks and made 7 total tackles, he’s also deflected 5 passes and forced 4 fumbles this season so he’ll have be a vital cog in the Cowboys defensive machine.

The most effective way to stop Aaron Rodgers displaying his many, well honed skills will be for the Cowboys to keep possession of the ball for the majority of the game and with Ezekiel Elliot and a mobile Quarterback in Dak Prescott they have players who can do that (they also have Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris who would start for most other NFL franchises but it’s unclear how willing they will be to spell Elliot who has been the league’s dominant Back this season).  In all 10 different players have run the football for the Cowboys this season and 4 of them have scored touchdowns so I would expect them to stray from their usual balanced attack (49% pass plays) to more run heavy game plan with the occasional deep pass in Dez Bryant’s direction to keep the defence honest.  The Packers Defence is seriously thin when it comes to defensive backs but if the Cowboys go after their defensive backfield there’s a solid chance that they will just end being drawn into a shoot out and there’s no better gunslinger than Rodgers particularly with Randall Cobb fit again, Cobb only caught 5 passes last week but he accounted for 126 yards and 3 of his 5 receptions were for touchdowns!

The Cowboys have only lost one game at home this season, which was to the Giants who the Packers successfully vanquished last week and since the Cowboys did beat Packers in Lambeau back in October they are the bookmakers favourites to win, they certainly have the personnel to grind out a win and in their previous meeting Elliot ran for 156 yards on 28 attempts!  However Rodgers and the Packers haven’t lost a game since the 20th of November and during that run he’s thrown 19 touchdowns and 0 interceptions (he’s actually thrown 22 touchdowns & run for 1 since his last interception).  He’s completed a career high 401 passes this season and I’m not sure the Cowboys can stop him.  So this game will really come down to whether or not the Dallas Offence can show up when the pressure is really on, over their last 7 games they have averaged 23 points per game which is very good, but the Packers have averaged 30 points per game so it looks like they’ll win a close game (although say that with very little conviction at all)!

AFC Divisional round Playoffs Houston Texans @ New England Patriots

In all honesty it’s difficult to see how the Texans can win this one; it’s difficult to see how anybody except the Patriots can win a Playoff game in Foxboro so without wishing to ruin the surprise I’m pretty sure this is a home win.
Tom Brady is arguably the best Quarterback who has ever played in the NFL, but he’s definitely the best Quarterback who is currently playing in the AFC, (Aaron Rogers is the only one in the league who could challenge him and might do in Houston in a few weeks) but the Texans do have distinguished themselves as the best Defence in the NFL this season so it shouldn’t be a walkover.  LaGarrette Blount has scored 6 rushing touchdowns for the Patriots this season and averaged about 80 yards from the line of scrimmage this season so Brady isn’t the Texans only concern, Blount has missed some practice this week though and although he is thought to be the starting Back he may not be at his devastating best.  Dion Lewis is a different type of Back to the giant Blount but he is averaging 4.4 yards per carry and 5.5 yards per catch so far this season and James White averages 9.2 yards per catch and 4.3 yards per rush for the Patriots this season too, so their Offence is stacked!

The Texans will have built some confidence last week when they eased past the Raiders, who it should be said were missing 2 of their most important players on Offence Donald Penn and Derek Carr. Nonetheless the performances of JaDaveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus who combined for 8 tackles, 2 sacks and an interception are reason to believe the Patriots won’t have it all their own way, especially if Blount is hindered by his injury.

On Offence the Texans have been inconsistent at best all season and their Offensive line is a serious concern although the return of Duane Brown will bolster their ranks the Patriots Chris Long and Rob Ninkovich should see a fair bit of Brock Osweiler who’s bound to take the heat if the Texans don’t make full use of DeAndre Hopkins, in truth the lack of a consistent run game combined with some iffy play calling and the aforementioned turnstile-esque pass blocking has combined to make Osweiler look a huge waste of money.  The Patriots Defence has made a speciality of forcing fumbles this season and only just 5 teams have managed more than their 10 and with temperatures falling to below zero the Texans will need to be extra careful when they are handling the ball.

You could get odds of 8-1 on the Texans winning this game and they frankly seem quite stingy odds, the Patriots are favoured to win by fewer than 12 points but it’s not inconceivable that they could win by somewhere nearer 18 points.  Veteran Texans Defensive Tackle Vince Wilfork may well be playing his last NFL game and as a Patriot legend his performance and how he’s received by the Foxborough faithful will be definitely worth keeping an eye on.

NFC Divisional round Playoffs – Seattle Seahawks @ Atlanta Falcons

Matt Ryan doesn’t have a great record in Playoff football; he’s won just 1 game out of the 5 that he’s played, but that game was against the Seahawks.  In his defence he hasn’t had the highest scoring Offence in the league around him before so his chances have never been as good as they are right now.  During the regular season the Falcons averaged almost 34 points per game which compares very favourably to Seattle who averaged just a shade over 22 and only scored more than 34 on 2 occasions.
The Seahawks relying on their Defence to win them games is not news but if they plan on keeping this one low scoring then they might come unstuck because the Falcons have only failed to score 20 points on 2 games this season and in their last 4 games they recorded an aggregate score of 154-75 (they’re kind of on fire).  For the Seahawks part they can cling to the fact they were victorious by 26-24 when the teams met back in week 5 but that game was at CenturyLink field, not in the Georgia Dome and in their last 4 regular season games the Seahawks aggregate score was 90-98!

This game is far from a done deal though and both Defence’s will be fun to watch, they have both have aggressive pass rushes with Atlanta recording 34 sacks this season, 15.5 of those were credited to Vic Beasley who led the league during the regular season (and 4 of those came in his last 4 games).  The Seahawks had the 3rd best number in the league with a very impressive 42 (Cliff Avril was their leader with 11.5 for the season).  On the Offensive side of the ball the Seahawks have also allowed 42 sacks, so Vic Beasley could well be in business tonight, Atlanta have been marginally better at protecting Matt Ryan as they’ve just allowed the 37 sacks but with extra emphasis on the Seahawks pass rush Ryan won’t be holding on to the ball for too long.  The Seahawks are missing one of the best 2 Free Safety’s in the NFL in Earl Thomas (I can’t separate him and Eric Berry in KC) which theoretically means they’re susceptible to the deep pass but with their receiving corps leading the league in yards after the catch with 6.37 they will probably stick to short throws that allow the receivers to use their speed and elusiveness to break off big chunks of yards.  The running game will be vital to slow down the Seahawks pass rush and the last time the 2 teams played the Falcons really struggled to get anything going on the ground, they recorded just 52 yards rushing and 2 of those were credited to Ryan.  This caused Ryan to be sacked 4 times losing 25 yards and throwing an Interception to Earl Thomas.  The Seahawks on the other hand ran all over the Falcons, although they only recorded 72 rushing yards they scored 3 touchdowns on the ground.

How the Falcons Offensive Co-ordinator Kyle Shanahan interviewing for numerous Head Coaches jobs has disrupted the team remains to be seen and while Ryan’s shaky Playoff record is a worry the Falcons have the players to win this game and with Beasley and their Receiving corps they have the ability to do it spectacularly.  The Seahawks biggest issue all season has been place kicking and every point will be crucial at this stage of the postseason so I can see that counting against the road team too, don’t be surprised if Haushka has his customary snap hook on an extra point and that could be a deciding factor.  I’m expecting a nervy game though and if the Seahawks can keep it a low scoring affair then there’s always a chance the home crowd will become restless and Ryan’s previous Playoff displays may well come back to haunt him.  The bookmakers have the Falcons as favourites to win by 6 points or fewer but if the Falcons continue their recent form then they should win by more than 1 touchdown.

Should player safety be case of more haste less speed? 

So, I saw a tweet from @JoshGardner of the @bloodandmud podcast and it got me thinking (well as close as my head gets to thinking  Seriously it’s like 2 marbles and an empty tin can up there), mainly because as cynical as it may appear he’s probably right:

Take a look at @joshgardner’s Tweet: https://twitter.com/joshgardner/status/811241510998044675?s=09

World Rugby certainly appear to have rushed through the new “directive”, brining it in mid-season for the Northern Hemisphere competitions seems a little strange, although they appear to tinker with rules on an almost monthly basis (seriously, who releases their bind to collapse a scrum?  You only release when the other guy’s forcing you down anyway and there’s now more rules for a rolling maul than there are for entering North Korea).  If the new approach is guided by the NFL lawsuit brought by ex-players (and the result of which was then subject to an appeal) this maybe just the first step on a windy road.  The NFL lawsuit was largely focussed on the belief that the NFL hid information that related to head trauma and the settlement from the resulting case was worth $765 million, since World Rugby has hardly hid or shied away from the issues of head trauma they already seem ahead of their American counterparts in this area (which is just as well since the chances that World Rugby have that sort of spare cash are pretty remote).  However when the NFL changed the rules regarding hits to the head as a precautionary measure they saw an increase in the number of knee injuries because players were so intent of tackling the ball carrier’s lower body.  As a result they then had introduce another new rule regarding low tackles on Quarterbacks (you can’t tackle below the knee or above the shoulders now), so if World Rugby have been influenced by recent history we could well be looking at more new rules (please God no) and we might as well all play football and take our chances with heading a lump of leather.

There are also other injury risks related to tweaking the tackle rules as illustrated perfectly by the “Archbishop of Banter-bury” James Haskell on Sunday when he momentarily become “concussed of Coventry” as he managed to smash his head into Freddie Burns (who may have since gained the nickname “Bones”) hip and knock himself unconscious, Haskell had only been on the pitch for around 34 seconds following a 6 month injury layoff (and I bet you didn’t think he did irony).  It was a completely innocuous and accidental contact but can’t have been any safer than being knocked out by a high tackle, World Rugby may have seriously misjudged just how quickly collisions happen in professional rugby today.  I can’t imagine anybody did, but somebody really should have kept a record of how many players were subject to a HIA after putting their head in the wrong position when tackling low at the weekend.  Technically it’s poor technique on behalf of the tackler, but when ball carriers are so big and the game moves at such a high pace then it’s understandable accidents will happen (likewise when it comes to high tackles when a more nimble player steps inside a slower defender, but you won’t get sent off for putting your hip into a potential tackler).

The second area I think the governing body have sorely misjudged is the amount of empathy that referee’s have for players and for different scenarios within the game (the ball of confusion and contention that is the rolling maul is an example), Richard Barrington’s red card on Saturday was the most widely picked bone of contention in the first weekend, but boy was it controversial.  The only way Barrington could have avoided being part of the tackle would have been to retreat and any professional sports man or woman isn’t going to run away from the ball during a match.  Brad Barritt who knocked Geoff Parling out with a swinging arm didn’t even get a yellow card from a referee and TMO who were clearly so flustered by what had happened and what they were forced to do by the new guidelines that the rest of the game degenerated into 15 Exeter players who were desperate not to give the officials an opportunity to level the playing field (so to speak) and a set of officials were almost solely concentrated on looking for high tackles whilst missing (or ignoring) more basic offences  like forward passes and knock on’s.  It will be interesting to see how many players Glen Jackson sends off for high tackles or how many Nick Wood or Karl Dickson would send off with them all having been involved in professional games in recent memory.

Finally, if these rules remain in place for the rest of the year then there has to a be a real chance that the Lions and All Blacks will be playing most of their Test series with as many players sat in the stands as on the field of play because the Kiwis won’t miss a chance to have an opponent sent off and the Lions coach is a Kiwi too.

New York Giants @ Green Bay Packers

“Football weather” has taken hold on the Eastern side of the United States and the -13 degrees they’re expecting in Green Bay will make the -6 in Pittsburgh seem positively balmy!  The conditions will only serve to add to the hype surrounding this game, a perfect storm of factors swirl around the final 2017 Wild Card game headlined by the first meeting of Super Bowl winning Quarterbacks in the Playoffs.

Aaron Rodgers lead the Packers to victory in Super Bowl XLV in 2011 (making them just the second 6th seed to do so) collecting both the Super Bowl and league MVP awards on the way.  In 2011 he also won the Associated Press Athlete of the year award and the Bert Bell NFL player of the year award, he also set the record for the highest passer rating over an entire NFL season with 122.5 (out of a possible 158.3), in many ways 2011 was a the year of Aaron Rodgers.  For his part Eli Manning has won the Super Bowl twice seeing off the New England Patriots twice, in 2008 and 2012, he was named MVP both times but the Giants and Packers have won their titles in different ways and this is why this matchup is so highly anticipated.

In Rodgers Super Bowl win the Packers set a record for the fewest rush attempts by a winning team in a Super Bowl with only 13, they also tied the record for fewest turnovers in a Super Bowl as they gave away none.  Rodgers threw 3 touchdowns and for 304 yards with Jordy Nelson catching 9 passes for 140 yards and 1 of the touchdowns.  The Giants Super Bowl wins under Eli have been much more team efforts, in 2008 he threw for 255 yards, 2 touchdowns and an interception while the Giants rushed for 91 net yards and their Defence stopped the Patriots on 2 crucial 4th down attempts.  In 2012 the Giants were even more successful running the ball as they average 4.1 yards per carry on their way to recording 114 yards on the ground while Eli threw 40 passes for 291 yards and a single touchdown and their defence made the only interception of the game.

But it’s not just historical comparisons which make these 2 teams such interesting competitors, this season they’ve both conjured up impressive 6 game winning streaks, (the Packers haven’t lost since the 20th of November and the Giants weeks 6-12) after stuttering at the beginning of the season.  The Packers still have a manly pass based Offence as Eddie Lacey is now injured and James Starks has been injured during the season but Ty Montgomery has filled in admirably (averaging 5.9 yards per carry over 5 games, although one of those games against the Bears seriously skewed that stat) and Aaron Ripkowski has been a more effective ball carrier than even the Packers seem to realise, he averages 4.4 yards per carry and 5.1 yards per catch but he averages just 5 touches per game.  Rodgers though has thrown a career high 401 completed passes this season for 610 attempts, another career high.  He’s also thrown a league leading 40 touchdown passes and just 7 interceptions this season, the Giants defence however have only allowed 15 touchdown passes all season and they’ve made 17 interceptions, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Landon Collins are particularly effective culprits with 6 and 5 respectively.  Collins has also made 4 sacks this season and with both Jason Pierre-Paul and backup Defensive End Owa Odighizuwa injured an extra onus may be put on Collins ability to pass rush, Green Bay have allowed 35 sacks so far this season and if Rodgers wasn’t such a mobile Quarterback it would surely have been more.  The Packers have rushed for just 11 touchdowns this season ranking them 20th in the league, the Giants Defence and in particular Damon “snacks” Harrison have been effective when it comes to snuffing out opposing Running Backs, he’s made a career high 86 tackles, deflected a pass, made 2 and a half sacks and forced a fumble this season.  Janoris Jenkins has been another standout performer on the Giants Defence this season and his battle to shutdown Jordy Nelson will be important, especially in conditions where any long pass completion could be a game changer.  The longest completion Jenkins has allowed season is just 23 yards and he’s taken 3 interceptions while defending 18 passes, he’s even weighed in with a sack and forced a fumble.  Jenkins suffered a bruised shoulder when he was struck by a team mate’s inadvertent knee as they both attempted to make a tackle in week 15, it reportedly won’t stop him playing in the postseason and it certainly didn’t stop trolling Jordy Nelson in what was reported by CBS as “a hastily deleted tweet”!

For the Giants Offence the emergence of Paul Perkins has been a much needed boon, veteran Running Back Rashad Jennings has failed to record a run longer than 38 yards since he arrived in East Rutherford from Oakland back in 2014 and this season his longest is a 25 yarder and he’s averaged a distinctly ordinary 3.3 yards per carry and he’s only rushed for 3 touchdowns in 2016.  Perkins on the other hand has averaged 4.1 yards per carry and 10.8 yards per pass reception.  In week 17 against the Redskins he recorded 102 yards on 21 carries.  The Packers Defence has allowed just 11 touchdowns on the ground all season but they have been giving up 4 yards per carry and only managed to force 1 fumble in 16 games.  Unlike their Giant counterparts the Packers Defence has had serious issues when it comes to stopping opposing passing attacks, largely due to the horrendous amount of injuries they have suffered to their secondary, this week they added 2 more Cornerbacks to an injury list that already included 3 who are out for the season, they have also got 5 Linebackers on their injury report but if anyone can still win with players nobody has ever heard of it’s the Packers.  Unfortunately for the Giants even though they might be facing a depleted Defence they have been fairly profligate with the football as a passing Offence and the 16 interceptions they’ve given away is the 6th highest number in the league.  They have also fumbled 11 times and finished the season with a -2 turnover ratio!

Everyone seems to be saying that the Packers are the team that nobody wants to play in the Playoffs, but I’m going to break ranks and say that the Giants Defence is the thing nobody wants to see during the Playoffs.  Pierre-Paul is a big loss but Romeo Okwara and Olivier Vernon could be able to get pressure on Rodgers and very often containing him is more effective than trying to get him on the ground because he’s far more agile than any Defence lineman could wish to be.  If The Packers can’t establish a run game early on then the Giants Defence will essentially only have to focus on Rodgers and with their predatory backfield they could have a field day.  The Giants won’t mind the extreme conditions as much as the Dolphins will in Pittsburgh as the temperature back in New Jersey will be a frosty -5 (and once it gets below about -4 everything is painful).  The major concerns for the Giants are that they have been more impressive at home this season with just 4 of their 11 wins coming in road games and one of the road games they lost earlier in the season was at Lambeau when the Packers prospered 23-16.  The Giants Defence has improved drastically since then though as a new coaching setup and a number of big name free agents have settled in.  When the Giants have run the ball 20 or more times this season they have a record of 7-0 so if they score the first touchdown they should book themselves a second visit of the season to Dallas to take on the Cowboys.

In all honesty this game could go either way and with all the hype surrounding it it’s bound to be a huge disappointment with the weather having the starring role, personally I would love the Giants to win because they could repeat they’re 2007 feat of winning in London and winning the Super Bowl in the same season (Landon Collins was fantastic in Twickenham back in October) but whoever wins this game will have a very real shot of making it to Reliant Stadium come February.

Miami Dolphins @ Pittsburgh Steelers

The Dolphins join the Raiders in the ranks of teams who have lost their starting Quarterback to injury in December but unlike Derek Carr in Oakland Ryan Tannehill may not miss the playoffs (it has recently been reported that Tannehill will play no part on Sunday, but an underdog team trying to get the jump on their opponent is not unheard of in the postseason), he has been able to practice but with the assistance of a knee brace.  Should Tannehill be able to take the field from the start on Sunday night then Miami’s chance will greatly improve, not because his replacement Matt Moore is a bad player but because Tannehill is more au fait with the players around him and lead them to 7 wins (that included a 6 game winning streak with a home win against Pittsburgh).  When the teams met in week 6 Tannehill did throw for 252 yards with a 75% completion rate as the Dolphins won but the real damage was done by Jay Ajayi who ran for 204 yards and scored 2 touchdowns.  In the game at the Hard Rock Stadium Ben Roethlisberger controversially suffered a knee injury when Ndamukong Suh’s foot made contact with Roethlisberger.  Suh was engaged in a David DeCastro block when the incident occurred and controversy surrounded whether or not the Suh acted deliberately or if the contact was incidental (the league did not punish Suh, so the official view was that he did not deliberately kick out), either way Suh will probably come in for some close attention at Heinz Field and it would be very surprising if he’s not double teamed on every down.

During the regular season both teams recorded fairly similar numbers on the Defensive side of the ball, with the Steelers allowing an average of 342.6 pass yards per game compared to the Dolphins average of 382.6 pass yards.  The Steelers have been better at stopping the run than the Dolphins this season though, but they have given up on average 100 yards per game, whereas the Dolphins have surrendered a rather whopping average of 140.4 yards!

The weather forecast for Pittsburgh on Sunday afternoon is a seasonably cold -6 degrees (Celsius) so Quarterback’s will have to battle numb fingers when throwing the ball.  Catching the ball will not be an easy task either so Wide Receivers, Defensive Back’s and anyone involved in Special Teams play are going to have to be on top form.  Running the ball will be the order of the day and in La’Veon Bell and Jay Ajayi both teams posses their own elite Back’s, Bell has the 5th highest number of rushing yards in the league this season 1,268 and with 4 more yards Ajayi has the 4th best total. They have both averaged 4.9 yards per carry, Ajayi has run in 8 touchdowns and Bell has recorded 7 of his own, Ajayi has fumbled 4 times, Bell 3 and both have had rushes of 20 plays yards this season, 10 for Ajayi but just 4 for Bell.  Really the only difference between the pair is that Bell was suspended at the start of the season and so his average number of yards per game is 105.7 compared to Ajayi’s 84.8, although Ajayi has recorded more than 200 yards in 3 games this season, a feat only matched by Tiki Barber in 2005, Earl Campbell and he who shouldn’t be mentioned (O.J. Simpson).

Fumbles could be the difference maker in the game, the Steelers have recovered 10 fumbles this season, one more than the Dolphins but they have only surrendered 3 of their own all season which leads the league, the Dolphins on the other hand have given up 8.  Slightly bizarrely they have both given up 15 interceptions, but Miami have made 16 compared to the Steelers 13, although it should be pointed out that the Steelers Defence have grown together throughout the season as they suffered a number of injuries which have seen them use many different personnel combinations.  Earlier in the season the defensive secondary and linebacker corps were particularly affected, now they have to deal with the loss of players on the defensive line and a few linebackers, so James Harrison may well feature more prominently in this game than most other 38 defenders in the league would.

The conditions will make it difficult for either team to fire up their high octane Offences and while neither team may not score as many touchdowns as they’d like it wouldn’t be a surprise if the tough Running Backs on display excel in adversity.  Special Teams will probably be vital because punting and place kicking in the sub-zero temperatures will incredibly difficult so coverage and returning kicks (even attempted Field Goals or Extra Points) will be invaluable.  Home advantage will be crucial in determining the result of this fixture and ultimately the temperature difference between the City of bridges and the tropical climbs of Miami, it’ll be around 18 degrees in Miami when the game kicks off will be too much for the Dolphins to overcome.  Adam Gase has had a very impressive first season in charge though leading a team with just 6 wins last year to 10 wins this season, if they have better fortune with injuries next season they may be improve even more.